Pumped: boys who can't wait to be men
Schoolboys wanting a hit of the latest bulk-building product or pill need not travel far. At Sydney's The Scots College, protein powders are supplied by teachers to adolescent athletes in the school gym. A sponsor of the school's rugby sevens tournament is Ultimate Sports Nutrition, whose products include "hardcore" anabolics, meal replacements and creatine "to deliver explosive gains in muscle size and strength".
In Melbourne, it is a short trip from several prestigious schools to Maximum Muscle, in St Kilda. On the shop's shelves are growth hormone or testosterone boosters, along with "pump up pills". Owner Daniel Shprung says his business among teenage boys is growing. "I get 15, 16, 17-year-olds, usually coming in with a parent. Most of them want to bulk up because they're very skinny and they want to fill the gap," he says.
He puts some young customers on a muscle-gaining program that includes protein shakes of 1000 calories at a time. "I usually tell them to take it straight after training and also take it to school and have it at morning recess," he says. "My daughter, she is seven, and every morning I make a protein shake and I give her a little bit and she loves it."
Other customers, typically older clientele, sometimes ask about steroids - which Shprung, a bodybuilder, says he has no truck with. But it's a murky world, he says. "People will admit murder, rape, armed robbery before they admit they use steroids."
A light was shone on such secrecy this month, with the expulsion of two students from an elite Brisbane boys' school after staff found illegal steroids. Nudgee College called in the police, who later charged a 17-year-old with possessing and supplying a dangerous drug. Another boy, 16, will be dealt with under the Youth Justice Act.
The arrests came as students from the college toured Japan for a world rugby youth tournament. But principal Daryl Hanly insisted it was an "isolated incident" with no link to the school's sports program. "This incident, while serious, highlights the issues associated with body image for young men," he said.
Queensland police commissioner Ian Stewart urged all schools to be on the alert for such drugs, saying the use of steroids among young people was frightening.
Indeed, cases concerning the use of performance and image-enhancing substances in schools are far from isolated. Fairfax Media can reveal a senior student at Cranbrook School, in Sydney, was kicked off the rowing squad for steroid use in recent years.
Every oversized private school sportsman tends to attract scuttlebutt about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, typically from the sidelines. But confirmed cases of steroid use are rare. Such secrecy surrounds the Cranbrook incident that Martin Haywood, the convener of Combined Associated Schools of NSW, which includes Cranbrook, says he is not aware of any issues with steroids among his member schools.
A Cranbrook old boy with ties to rowing, who declined to be named, says students are regularly exposed to talk about steroids and supplements to improve sports performance. "They meet other people in different regattas or social functions, and there are people there that hang around and probably try to promote these drugs," he says.
"They [the boys] are at a vulnerable age. They're not ready to think about these matters properly. They want to make themselves into little Atlases or Hercules."
That desire to look "buff", "ripped" or "bulk" - also known as the Adonis complex - is driving many boys to take performance and image-enhancing products.
While the use of steroids remains rare, a 2012 Sydney University study of body image and weight gain by high school boys, found many were taking legal supplements such as protein powders and amino acid pills.
"You do see a trend towards a drive for muscularity and masculinity, particularly for better self-image but also for better sports performance," says body image and health education researcher Professor Jennifer O'Dea.
Her study, which is not yet published, of 1090 boys from 28 high schools in NSW found more than a quarter of those students in years 11 and 12 reported having used sports supplements, vitamins or minerals, to gain weight and muscle.
Cultural differences, rather than socioeconomic status, was key in driving boys to take supplements or drugs. Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander boys were more likely to be obese and prone to body dissatisfaction and weight loss attempts. Boys of an Asian or Anglo/Caucasian background were more concerned about being too thin. Only a small number of students - 5.6 per cent in year 12 and 1.7 per cent in year 11 - reported using medication or drugs, such as steroids, insulin injections and "muscle-building pills", purchased through gyms or drug dealers.
But taking basic sports supplements makes boys more susceptible to such behaviour, O'Dea argues.
In many cases, the boys said, parents had told them to "eat up and gain weight", in the same way they might tell girls to stay slim. Some boys playing football were were told by their coach they should bulk up by taking protein powders.
"I think becoming a man is so much more than being big and strong and tough. But we don't seem to be giving this important message to boys," O'Dea says.
Newington College headmaster David Mulford says the pressure on boys comes from two sides: media exposure to sculpted, idealised men has meant many boys want to be toned and muscular; while the growth of professional sports means some young athletes push themselves to the extreme.
While there have been no cases of students taking steroids at his Sydney school, he says, "it would be naive to think some boys have not been tempted to go down that pathway".
"All sports now have elite sports programs and try to develop talents earlier. There is pressure on boys and parents because all sports are trying to get their hands on talented people earlier and earlier."
To counter such pressures, the school has added a compulsory subject to its personal development curriculum warning about the health risks of anorexia, "bigorexia" and the Adonis complex.
The school has also employed a full-time strength and conditioning staff member to ensure boys do not start lifting weights before about the age of 15. "We had a couple of boys last year we thought may have been going down a certain pathway, their body image was changing rapidly, so we let them know and their parents that there was a concern."
Cranbrook's senior head of school Michael Parker says body image pressures are increasingly felt by boys as well as girls. "To be simply healthy-looking is not enough, there is an element of having been sculpted in some way," he says.
"Going to the gym and being healthy is a really positive thing for young males with a lot of testosterone. What we have got to guard against is the much more extreme version of it, where it's overwhelming and the purpose is for appearance rather than fitness or strength."
But drawing the appropriate line is confusing for many boys, particularly as schools take different approaches to the use of sports supplements.
Melbourne Grammar's director of leadership Nathan Jessup acknowledges some students might be taking protein powders, but says such use is not widespread. The school also seeks to limit the amount of sports training by students. "We are pretty clear on communicating to coaches it is not appropriate to start football training in January. We try not to put too much pressure on students," he says.
Sydney's St Joseph's College headmaster Ross Tarlinton says his school tells boys there is "absolutely no need" to use sports supplements. "A kid can buy protein powders at the local health food shop but they are not supported or promoted here in any way whatsoever."
He says it would be misleading to equate a successful sports program with the promotion of performance-enhancing products.
Scots College principal Ian Lambert says the school relies on the advice of sports scientists and dieticians when providing protein powders and carbohydrate replacements to students, with their parents' permission, in sports such as basketball. "Our policy is our staff will manage the general health of students and we provide a lot of advice to students about what is healthy and what is unhealthy," he says.
"I think what a lot of people don't understand is to play at a competitive level they are doing four of five training sessions and playing a game a week. You can't do that without having a very well managed strategy for their general health and well-being."
Recent publicity concerning the use of illicit performance-enhancing drugs by elite athletes has set a poor example for many students. George Patton, professor of adolescent health research at the University of Melbourne, says the idealised image of muscular, "ripped" men shown through the media, in computer games and on sporting fields also adds pressure on boys.
"We are moving to champions now who are bigger, stronger, more muscled than the past," he says. "For some kids the focus becomes getting bigger, stronger, more muscular. To the extent that visiting the gym, taking nutritional supplements and, in some instances, steroids, is something a young man believes are going to take him there, he will engage in those behaviours."
Working out what substances are appropriate for a growing adolescent boy is difficult. The Australian Institute of Sport's head of nutrition Louise Burke says there are practical advantages in taking protein supplements in addition to protein-rich foods, such as dairy products or meat, as part of a sports program.
But she says many protein supplements are expensive and contain unknown ingredients, such as stimulants to make the user train harder. There are no long-term studies on the possible health risks in taking such powders, she says.
"Boys do need protein and sometimes there are practical reasons for wanting to have something that is able to be packaged and transported in the way normal food cannot be," she says. "But our approach is always food first. While there are some legitimate uses for these products, I think they are over-promoted, over-hyped and overpriced," she says.